On the Shoofly - December 2016
Santa School Saga
A local man with high ambitions and big dreams attends a very special school to learn the secrets of old Saint Nick.
- story by Bob McGraw, photos by Shannon Lutkins and Bob McGraw
Then you have kids of your own, and you become Santa Claus. Finally, in Stage 4, you look like Santa Claus.
I am definitely a Stage 4! My waistline has a tendency to expand, and I find it necessary to trim my near-white beard in the fall to keep random children from climbing in my lap to request toys as the Christmas season approaches.
I have always loved the imagery of Santa and the spirit of giving he represents. The virtues of Christmas are many, the vices few. While some may complain of its crass commercialism, I have always chosen to see the season as one of joy, good will, and generosity. I enjoy the season more every year, as I watch new generations come to know its wonder.
After a career as a high school math teacher, I retired and my wife and I moved to Old Town Bay Saint Louis. The catalyst for the move was the announcement by my daughter of the impending birth of our grandson. But what was I to do with myself, now that I have the freedom to pursue other dreams?
I decided it was time to embrace the inevitable and become Santa! I have always been one to do my best to research and prepare for upcoming challenges, and I quickly found out that the best way to become the jolly old elf was to go to Santa School. But not just any Santa School!
While there are several Santa Schools across the nation, the granddaddy of them all is the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan. The school was founded in 1937 by a man who was the Santa for the New York City Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1948 to 1965, and it was originally based in his home in Albion, New York. When Howard died in 1966, the school was moved to Midland, Michigan where it is currently run by Tom and Holly Valent.
Traveling to Santa School was an adventure in its own right. When I flew out of New Orleans, it was a balmy 85 degrees. After a brief layover in Detroit, I arrived in Saginaw, Michigan where it was 28 degrees with snow on the ground (and on my rental car). The short drive to my hotel in Midland was uneventful, and I checked in for the night.
Picture, if you will, the sight that greeted me at breakfast the next morning: Twenty or so Santas clad in a variety of Santa-themed outfits were partaking of coffee, waffles, yogurt, and cereal.
Mind you, none were in full Santa costume, but there were plenty of red suspenders, Santa hats of various types, a few poofy-sleeved Renaissance shirts, and even one white-bearded gentleman wearing red long-johns (complete with trap door) decorated with a bear paw on each cheek!
Once breakfast was complete I drove to the Midland Arts Center for the day’s activities. Even more Santas were there. One was the eldest Santa from Sweden, 96-year-old Fred Oster, wearing a 3-foot-tall red gnome hat! Santas of all sizes and descriptions filled the room, and, of course, there were cookies, hot cocoa, and thankfully, coffee.
Head of the school Tom Valent got the festivities started and gave a short talk about what to expect. This was followed by a presentation about the history of Santa, beginning with Saint Nicholas of Myra who lived from 270 to 343 CE in what is now modern day Turkey. The presentation followed the evolution of Santa up through the centuries including the origins of various European traditions and then to America and the more modern depictions that we recognize today.
Over the course of the three days that I spent at the school, I learned about such things as beard care, the proper way to say “Ho Ho Ho,” makeup, costuming, stagecraft, reindeer care, sign language for Santa, conducting radio and television interviews, the latest toys (by visiting Toys “R” Us), how to make wooden toys, and of course, the names of Santa’s reindeer. We rode a steam locomotive called the Polar Express that went at a blinding speed of six miles per hour!
That evening we visited Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, which is billed as the world’s largest Christmas store. I bought a few ornaments as presents, but the best part happened when a little girl ran up to me dragging her father by the hand. She wanted her picture with Santa, and I was not even dressed as Santa, though I did have a red hat on! What an affirmation. My heart melted on the spot!
On the last day of the school we gathered for the graduation dinner at the Midland Country Club. We were regaled by a Scottish bagpipe band, and the Swedish contingent (there were five of them this year) sang a traditional Christmas song from their homeland called the Musevisa (Mouse Song) Carol. Americans would recognize it as the basis for the theme song from the Fred Pinner Show. Finally, we received our diplomas, and I am happy to report that I graduated Magna Cum Santa!
My flight left Saginaw at 7 a.m., but this time I was routed through Minneapolis–St. Paul. On the flight from there to New Orleans, I gave each of the two flight attendants a ribbon that said they were on Santa’s “nice list.” They were very excited and said that they would wear them on Christmas Eve.
A bit later, I was poring over a Sudoku puzzle when I heard a voice ask, “Santa, would you like some milk and cookies?” I looked up and saw a third flight attendant, and she was holding out a carton of milk and two cookies. I thanked her, but declined (I am diabetic) and said, “Would you like a ribbon, too?” It seemed that she had seen the ribbons the others had received and wanted one too!
Santa School was a wonderful, heart-warming experience. My time in Midland was characterized by a focus on the traditional values of the Christmas spirit. No one talked politics, there was very little negativity, and the truth is that I really needed a respite from the constant drumbeat of the politics of division, anger, and fear. I was reminded that there are men and women of good will from all walks of life and of all persuasions out there, and that we all need a good dose of the spirit embodied by Santa Claus. I made a lot of friends, and everyone was free with suggestions and advice (one new friend is one of only two Santas on the island of Maui in Hawaii!).
Since returning to Bay Saint Louis, I have been preparing for my new role as Santa. I have the suit, I have the hat, I am almost finished with my “Santa Chair” as I write, and I will be Santa at two branches of the public library (Kiln on December 13, and Diamondhead on the 15th). I have also been asked to be Santa for several photography sessions and hope to book more events and/or parties.
I will be at the Mockingbird on December 10 for Selfies With Santa and other venues and events are in the works. I have worked as a voice artist for a number of years (I have voiced everything from TV and radio ads to video games and audiobooks), and by December 1, I plan to have a website up and running where parents and grandparents can order custom phone messages from Santa for their little ones. I think December will be a busy month! If anyone has questions (or needs a Santa), I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and my website is santaonthebay.com.
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